Why is it important that we who are Evangelicals in the Anglo-American churches listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer? What has he to say for us?
First, we need to recognize that our splintered American church with its labels for a variety of schools of thought – such as Fundamentalist, Charismatic, Evangelical, Liberal – simply has no relevance when discussing European theology. Bonhoeffer was not an Evangelical, if only because he was German and cannot be fit into any particular American categories.
When he spent the 1930-31 school year in America, the only churches with which he felt any connection at all were the Black churches, especially Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Clifford Green, one of the foremost among the Bonhoeffer scholars of our day, wrote:
Having made scathing criticisms of lectures pretending to be sermons in white churches, he warmed to the unfamiliar but authentic and moving preaching at Abyssinian. “I heard the gospel preached in the Negro churches. . . Here one really could still hear someone talk in a Christian sense about sin and grace and the love of God and ultimate hope, albeit in a form different from that to which we are accustomed.”
Second, Bonhoeffer shares with us our two most foundational convictions, that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the Bible is the Word of God. His commitment to Christ and Scripture was formed in a cultural and religious context quite unlike anything we have experienced ourselves, so of course he would express and emphasize some things differently than we might. That means he can help us understand our own convictions from a fresh perspective and thereby protect us from provincialism.
Third, Bonhoeffer built on our shared foundations a theological house that is not at all like the interpretations of the Bible which we have repeated to one another for more than a century. He matured beyond his beginnings while we tend to remain beginners in the Christian life. We remind ourselves often that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), but seldom do we speak of Paul’s admonition:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16; emphasis added; see also I Corinthians 3:1-3 and Colossians 1:28-29).
We must grow up in every way into Christlikeness of character in order to fulfill our creation as imago dei, the image of God. We cannot fulfill God’s intention for us without growing up to become mature and Christlike in character. Bonhoeffer will challenge us to do just that. He was not content to remain immature, to rely on pat answers, to be bound by unexamined conventions.
There are three stages of learning: observing carefully to gain knowledge of the facts, thinking carefully to gain insight into their meaning, and acting wisely by those insights to live a godly life. Immature Christians skim the facts, rush to ill-founded interpretations, then live with only a hazy idea of what it means to be biblical.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am sure, would be very ill at ease in a twenty first century evangelical church and would speak strongly against self-imposed immaturity, our self satisfaction, our shallow understanding of Scripture and theology, and our insulation from the injustices of the world around us. As historian Mark Noll put it several years ago, “The trouble with the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” To Bonhoeffer the evangelical neglect of loving God with the whole mind would be utterly inexcusable.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer expanded the edges of our understanding not because he doubted or was dissatisfied with the core of Christian thinking but because he was so very certain of that core. And, most deeply, he was very confident in the One who stands at the center, the Creator who is known in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
We share Bonhoeffer’s confidence in Jesus Christ – do we not? – and so can follow his lead in moving beyond the basics into a mature faith. There will be some challenges along the way.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer truly is more of a challenge than a comfort to American Evangelicalism. May we accept that challenge with grace and integrity.